Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Strange World of Charles B. Pierce

Last night I was watching the "MST 3K" version of Boggy Creek II: And The Legend Continues starring and directed by the late Charles B. Pierce. I remember seeing his original Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) and The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) in theaters when I was a kid, and I recall being struck by how strange they were, with their low-budget rawness and documentary approach. I also remember that they were pretty cheesy. And it made me wonder...what the hell happened to Charles B. Pierce, anyhow?

While refreshing my memory of Boggy Creek on IMDB today, I was amused to find so many comments from readers with childhood memories of being absolutely terrified by the film. Since it was rated G by the MPAA, I'm sure it played a lot of kiddie matinees. I was already pretty jaded by then, though—even at my young age, I'd already seen Night of the Living Dead and The Godfather (The Exorcist was a year away), so this one wasn't going to do anything to me. And it didn't. There are so many songs, it's practically a musical, and it takes forever for anything to happen. The only part that sticks in my memory is the bathroom scare scene, which you can see here:

Blair Witch Project co-creator Daniel Myrick cites Boggy Creek as the inspiration for his film, and there are certainly parallels. The film alternates interviews with locals who claim to have seen the Sasquatchy creature, re-enactments of lame attacks, and lots of outdoor scenery while the narrator yaps away. Maybe it's this documentary approach—something that hadn't been seen quite that way in a horror film before—that made me so impatient. I wanted thrills, and all I got was a faux-Disney nature documentary with cheesy songs. I'm playing clips of it on YouTube right now as I write this, and I'm still getting pissed off!

It captured the zeitgeist big-time, though. Made on a budget of around $100,000, it eventually earned about $20 million. That's a pretty good payoff.

Pierce made a couple of rural non-horror films before returning to the horror documentary genre with The Town that Dreaded Sundown. This film was more ambitious. It's got a bigger budget, it's set in the '40s and it even has name actors (Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine) in it. As an added bonus, Mary Ann herself—Dawn Wells—is featured in a small role. I hadn't ever seen her in anything but "Gilligan's Island," and here she was playing a victim in a grungy horror film. Weird.

I saw this one at the drive-in, and I have to admit that it creeped me out while I was sitting in a car in the darkness and hearing the crickets chirping outside, mirroring what was happening in the movie. Definitely the inspiration for the slashers to come in the next decade, it features a spooky hooded killer—known only as the Phantom—whose mask moves in and out as he breathes.

But the murders are all implied, rather than graphically shown, and since it was rated R, I was hoping for more red stuff. The killings also all take place at night outdoors, and anyone who's been to the drive-in knows how difficult it is to see nighttime outdoor scenes.

And, of course, that damn narrator would start jawboning again, dispelling any suspense that may have been built up. And it's the same guy who did Boggy Creek—Vern Stierman! His only other gig in film besides these two was in 1983's The Being, playing—guess what? The narrator!

The murder that made the biggest impression on me is a drawn-out sequence in which the Phantom ties a girl to a tree, attaches a knife to the end of a trombone, and "plays" it to quite literally stab her in the back. When Mary Ann—I mean Dawn Wells—finally shows up, she gets shot a couple of times and manages to drag herself to a neighbor's house before the Phantom can finish her off.

Here's the trombone killing. The person who uploaded this video to YouTube seems to think the actress is Dawn Wells, but it's not.

Sundown was an early release on home video. I remember going into Tower Video and seeing the oversized Warner Home Video box with the creepy hooded guy and thinking, "Well, maybe this isn't such a bad movie after all." I rented it, took it home, watched it and said, "Well, this is a bad movie after all." The killings are sick but not explicit, and the interaction between the professional actors and the "locals" is pretty jarring. Pierce himself plays an inept police officer. Again, the IMDB user comments are all about being "scarred for life when I saw it as a kid," but I just don't get it.

Still, if we have Boggy Creek to thank for Blair Witch, then Friday the 13th and its ilk owe a debt of gratitude to Sundown. These films also inspired those cheesy UFO documentaries from the '70s as well as the Italian "found footage" cannibal vomitoriums from the same decade.

In 1979 Pierce made The Evictors, another period piece allegedly based on a true story. I'd recently seen one of the stars, Jessica Harper, in Suspiria and Phantom of the Paradise, so I figured if she was involved in this, it must be good. Why? Oh, I don't know. Anyhow, it's rated PG and it's rea-a-a-a-llly slow.

There's no narrator for this one, but ol' Vern might have helped to keep the audience awake. It's about a young couple (Harper and Michael Parks) who move into a house which was the scene of brutal murders some ten years before. Again, there's a whole lot of yakking, numerous sepiatone flashbacks, and the non-explicit killings are few and far between.

Pierce returned to Boggy Creek in 1985, as I mentioned in the opening of this post and takes the part of the professor. I don't know how much fun it'd be to watch without Mike and the 'bots on hand, but I sure had fun riffing on it in the MST 3K channel chatroom on Justin TV. There's a song that's reprised frequently on the soundtrack that is suspiciously reminiscent of "On the Wings of a Snow White Dove"; a skinny blond kid who wears extremely tiny shorts but never a shirt; scary hillbilly locals that you can almost smell; and girls who look like they're going to Jazzercise rather than hunt for a legendary beast. Here's the trailer:

More interesting to me than his directorial efforts are other aspects of Pierce's career. He was primarily a set decorator, and he did lots of film and television from the 60s to the 80s in projects as varied as The Outlaw Josey Wales, Scream Blacula Scream and the short-lived "Ellen Burstyn Show"! He also has a story credit for the 1983 Clint Eastwood actioner Sudden Impact. His last credit is for "The Bonnie Hunt Show" in 1995.

He gave an interview to Fangoria magazine in 1997, but—frustratingly—I can't find it online. He was in talks with directors Duane Graves and Justin Meeks to co-produce their 2008 homage to horror documentaries, Wild Man of the Navidad, but it fell apart when Pierce insisted on directing the piece. I can't decide if that's a missed opportunity or a bullet dodged. He died in March of this year at a nursing home in Tennessee. He was 71.

Even though I'm not wild about his movies, they do have a deserved place in film history. Rest in peace, Chuck. I hope that wherever you are, Vern is narrating your life story.


Russell Adams said...

Finally, a good use for a trombone! Vern Stierman was a weather forecaster for the NBC affiliate in Texarkana. I guess he didn't see these disasters coming.

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